The National Pay Campaign: Well, maybe next year?

For more than a million local government workers across England and Wales the absolute pay freeze is set to continue into a third consecutive financial year. To the surprise of very few, the umbrella body for councils, the Local Government Employers, confirmed on 23 February that it would not be making any pay offer whatsoever for 2012-13 in response to the joint trade union side’s extremely modest below inflation claim.

Since April 2009 a study commissioned by UNISON, but conducted by the New Policy Institute (NPI) confirmed what many of us had strongly suspected. For the vast majority of local government staff at the top of their grades, the past three years have seen the real value of earnings drop and drop sharply. The NPI report, Living on the Edge, published in February shows a fall of 13% over the period, while further highlighting that the real pay of a typical local government employee is now 10% below what it was in 1996 in the final days of John Major’s Tory government.

And with inflation still outstripping official targets, the erosion of pay looks set to continue with Chancellor George Osborne’s 29 November 2011 announcement of a 1% cap on public sector pay increases for a further two years after April 2013, a policy effectively endorsed by the Labour Party’s parliamentary leadership. Meanwhile, multiple surveys suggest that average earnings are now rising by 3% across the British economy as a whole.

The policy of pay restraint, contrary to an oft repeated argument, seems to have done little or nothing to save local government jobs. A study for UNISON carried out last autumn by the Labour Research Department, making use of Freedom of Information requests, indicated that local authorities had axed some 30,000 jobs in the preceding year despite the drastic fall in real pay, compounded in a number of local cases by further attacks on terms and conditions, effectively undermining the National Joint Council (NJC) ‘Green Book’ agreement.

So what has the response been from UNISON and the other NJC unions, the GMB and Unite? To be frank, quite modest: UNISON’s Head of Local Government, Heather Wakefield, wrote on behalf of the three unions to the conciliation service, ACAS, calling for binding arbitration. Otherwise, there is talk of a ‘high profile campaign on pay and conditions’, extending across Scotland as well as England and Wales, ‘with a view to industrial action next year’.

Perhaps members will be chomping at the bit to strike in a year’s time after another 12 months of large-scale redundancies and declining real pay, but I fear that the experience of the rapid demobilisation of the pensions fight after an unprecedented build-up but just one day of strike action may have sapped rather than strengthened members’ willingness to resist.

The UNISON committee dealing with NJC issues also agreed to write to all local authorities, calling for payment of £250 to those on less than £21,000, a staggering 70% of those on NJC terms and conditions nationally. A handful of authorities across England and Wales have implemented the £250 award to those on annual earnings of £21,000 or less, as suggested by Osborne when he first imposed the pay freeze across the whole of the public sector in 2010. To date, the Labour-controlled councils in Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets, along with the Corporation of London (which is not part of the NJC), have been the only authorities in the capital to agree the £250 payment for the coming year.

In Camden, UNISON has been pushing for a consolidated £250 award for all those on annual pay of £25,000 or less (Scales 1-5) as part of the ongoing talks on pay ‘modernisation’.

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